Three Reasons I Really Did Not Like Michael Pollan’s Newest, “Cooked”

1. The premise feels phony and staged:

Pollan has said that he is “more at home in the garden than the kitchen” (In Defense of Food), but this modesty about his cooking skills is less than convincing to those who read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which he prepared a highly local meal of wild pork cooked two ways, bread leavened with wild yeasts he captured himself, and a sour cherry galette with fruit from Pollan’s own trees.

This same odd forgetfulness characterizes Pollan’s new book, in which he describes himself as a person who “seldom made time for cooking or gave it much consideration,” a puzzling confession coming from the man who told us boldly in 2008 to “cook, and if you can, plant a garden.” Instead of the competent cook whose culinary plans for his wild boar involved braises and reductions, brining and crushed peppercorns, and roasting over olive wood, in Cooked, Pollan casts himself as bumbling in the kitchen, a novice whose “most successful dishes leaned heavily on the cooking of others.” One could argue that Pollan came to understand himself as a culinary ingénue simply by immersing himself in the wealth of all there is to know about traditional Southern barbecue, the history of pot-cooked dishes, and the science of bread baking, cheesemaking, and fermentation (all prominent in Cooked)—that he came, as diligent students do, to realize how very little he really did know about cooking. But that’s not how he tells the story. No, we are to somehow conjure a Michael Pollan who in spite of his prior evangelizing on the importance of home cooking, never gave much thought or attention to what went on in the kitchen of his own house, and has only recently learned the words to describe what he loves most about bread:

“I especially love the contrast between a rugged crust and a moist, tender, alveolate interior—the ‘crumb,’ as I’ve learned to call it, now that I’ve been hanging around bakers.”

However, Pollan doubts the possibility that he will ever become one of their magical kind; he notes that “in ancient Greece, the word for ‘cook,’ ‘butcher,’ and ‘priest was the same—magieros,” and that it “shares an etymological root with ‘magic.’ “

“I had little reason,” he writes, “to believe I’d be, or ever become, any good at [baking bread.] To the contrary. I had baked one or two loaves years before with only middling results, and had concluded baking was probably not for me.”

At which point I scratched my head and turned back to The Omnivore’s Dilemma (page 408) and found that not only had Pollan’s bread garnered praise from a culinary professional, he’d also known to refer to the “alveolate interior” of bread as “the ‘crumb’ ” long before he began “hanging around bakers”:

“Angelo reserved his most enthusiastic praise for my bread, which I’ll admit did have a perfect crust, an airy crumb, and a very distinctive (though not at all sour) flavor.”

2. He makes it seem like home cooking and baking is something almost no one can really do:

The Michael Pollan of In Defense of Food (2008) was happy enough to let us simply play around in the kitchen to the betterment of our bodies and souls (cf. Robert Farrar Capon, The Supper of the Lamb, 1966), the Michael Pollan of 2013 seems to be engaging in a literary form of the extreme Food Network performances he writes of with faint disdain. Is Pollan’s goal for us all to feel as if we’re rushing things if we sauté the onions for ten minutes instead of a “half hour at least” or if we bake homemade bread with (gasp) commercial yeast instead of a natural levain? While he intends his extreme Slow Food project to lodge a protest against “the total rationalization of life,” he (perhaps unwittingly) makes the whole endeavor of cooking seem a lot more esoteric and difficult than it is. It’s not hard to imagine that many people will put down Cooked believing themselves incapable of making a good meal, simply because they can’t, like Pollan, devote several years to casual apprenticeships with expert brewers, bakers, pit-masters, and chefs.

3. He is way, way too enamored of microbes, and way too nostalgic in general.

It sure is easy to bewail things being too clean and free of friendly microbes when you live in Berkeley, California and have the resources to seek help should your fermented cabbage wreak (ormore accurately, reek) havoc on your body, and to rhapsodize about all the benefits of friendly bacteria from fermented foods that “our ancestors” ate, but, come on now. We may be living in a more “toxic” (or toxically sterile) environment than ever, but we in the developed world at least are living longer and longer and longer.

Overall, Cooked is a well-written account of a decent cook becoming a better cook–and a guy who doesn’t seem to get out of Berkeley enough, or to read enough about the history of epidemic disease.

{Read my full review at Books & Culture}

Where There Are No Good Bakeries (Or, “when the crusty bread is too pricey.”)

As much as I believe that learning to cook and bake well can be more fun and more rewarding than you might have expected, I am a big fan of outsourcing some of those responsibilities. I love buying bread from good bakeries, the kind of bread that actually gets hard after a day or two.

But for one thing: that kind of bread is often pretty expensive.

And for another: good bakeries don’t exist everywhere. And there aren’t any here.

So I’ve been tweaking a recipe and technique for making a crusty bread (I usually shape them as baguettes) that’s really quite good. Granted, it takes time, but if you have more time than money and love crusty bread, this is the recipe for you.

And I’m going to share it.

5 ingredients: honey, salt, yeast, and flour

5 ingredients: honey, salt, yeast, flour, and water.

1. mix 1 and 1/2 cups of flour with 1 and 1/2 teaspoons instant dry yeast:

Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 8.54.18 AM2. mix 2 teaspoons of honey with 1 and 1/2 cups lukewarm (115 degrees F) water and pour over flour/yeast:

you are making what is known as the 'sponge.'

you are making what is known as the ‘sponge.’

3. mix until it resembles a lumpy batter, cover with a cloth, and allow to sit until it is foamy and at least doubled in volume:

It should look like this.

It should look like this.

4. stir it down again, cover, and repeat twice–it should be just a half-hour or so between stirrings. THEN, add 1 and 1/2 teaspoons salt, and another 1 and 1/2 cups flour, and stir until mixture forms a ball.

You can use your Kitchen-Aid or food processor equipped with the dough hook (or dough blade)–or even your bread machine–to do much of the kneading, if that is odious to you. I have none of these things here in Malawi, so I do it by hand. But my neighbors grind their flour by hand, so I’m not about to complain.

Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 8.55.48 AM5. once you have a dough ball that coheres (you may need to sprinkle on a little flour here and there to keep it from sticking) cut it in two equal halves and knead each half separately by hand until the outside of the ball feels satiny smooth. This is best accomplished by flattening-folding-turning, then flattening-folding-turning again and again, rolling it back into a ball between each flattening-folding-turning.

Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 8.56.11 AM6. Once both dough-balls are satiny smooth, place them in a bowl and cover with a cloth. Allow to double in size, then flatten-fold-turn-roll-into-balls again, cover, and allow to double once more.

Finally, you are ready to gently roll each ball into a long snake–as long as your baking pan can accommodate. Dip your hands in flour and dust your work surface if there’s sticking, but don’t go overboard with the flour–it can make the resulting bread too dense.

At this point, turn your oven to its hottest setting (about 500F is good) and place a baking stone or a regular ol’ baking sheet in there to preheat as well.

7. Flatten the snake of dough and fold it in half, roll it smooth again, and repeat several times:

Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 8.56.33 AMScreen Shot 2013-07-11 at 8.57.02 AM

8. roll out the snakes nice and smooth once more, and score them diagonally with a very sharp knife–about a 1/4 inch slash:

you can also use one of those old fashioned straight razor blades--they're the best for this.

you can also use one of those old fashioned straight razor blades–they’re the best for this.

9. cover loaves with a cloth and allow to rise perhaps 20 minutes–not much more.

Carefully remove your pre-heated pan or stone from the hot oven and very lightly grease with oil (grapeseed or corn is best for this purpose) and gently and carefully place the loaves on the pan. Wet your hands and run them over the loaves, coating each with a bit of water. THIS IS IMPORTANT as it’s what will help give them that super-crisp crusty bread crust!

Allow to bake for 20 minutes before rotating the pan. Continue to bake, and when they are starting to look quite golden (after about 10-15 minutes), use tongs or mitts to remove them from the pan and place them upside down on the oven rack. Using a pastry brush, brush the partially baked loaves all over with water once more–again, to maximize the crustiness.

10. loaves are done when they are nicely browned and when they sound very hollow when tapped on the bottom.

Screen Shot 2013-07-11 at 8.58.01 AMAnd voilà. It’s best on the same day, and store it in a breadbox or paper bag to help preserve crustiness. You can also re-crisp it by placing it in a very hot preheated oven for 2 or 3 minutes.

You can use the same recipe (and much the same technique) to turn this into pizza dough, or even small crusty rolls. The keys are:

1. The “sponge”: half the flour, all the water/honey, all the yeast, risen up and stirred down at least twice. NO SALT YET! This develops the flavor.

2. The no oil nature of this recipe. Oil the pan ONLY. No oil in the dough.

3. The brushing of the water. It creates the steam that professional bakers use to achieve maximum crustiness.

4. The super-hot oven.

I don’t think this recipe is for you lucky duck New Yorkers and San Franciscans and other urban dwellers who can just pop around to the boulangerie to grab a perfect baguette or bâtard, but if you’re like me and can’t do that–or, like many of us–can’t afford a $4 loaf of bread, this yields a mighty satisfying substitute.

Also, if I may be permitted a little bookish rant: Michael Pollan makes baking good bread sound WAY TOO HARD in his new book, Cooked. And it’s not. It’s just. Not.

What are some things YOU’VE learned to make because you could afford to buy them–or because they weren’t available where you were?

Is That Bikini Video–and the ‘modesty’ movement–really about nostalgia?

Nostalgia is big right now. From Michael Pollan’s new panegyric on “traditional” food preparation, Cooked, to, all things Mad Men (or previous) seem to be ‘in,’ down to hula hoops, bright red lipstick, ‘vintage’-style, well, everything, and grave suspicion of some of the best that modern science has had to offer, like vaccines and antibiotics.

While I love a beautiful mid-century style (dress, phone, desk) as much as the next twenty- or thirty-something, I really don’t love other aspects of nostalgic thinking.

Reading Michael Pollan’s latest—where he bemoans the overly sterile condition of the modern world, where our ‘guts’ are no longer properly ‘colonized’ by all sorts of ‘friendly bacteria’—I couldn’t help thinking that his was a longing that could only be experienced by someone with good health insurance in a developed country who gets to engage bacteria (friendly or otherwise) solely on his own terms. It’s a little harder to be starry-eyed about the benefits of the friendly bacteria and the evils of pasteurization when you are living in a place that still regularly sees outbreaks of typhoid and tuberculosis.

It’s equally difficult to see vaccine suspicion sympathetically when every time you go shopping you pass by people who’ve been permanently disabled by polio, only a few of whom have ‘luxuries’ like wheelchairs and crutches.

Recently I read and reviewed two very different books that deal with forms of popular nostalgia: Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound, about the “new domesticity,” and Valerie Weaver-Zercher’s Thrill of the Chaste, a study of the popularity of Amish romance novels. Each points out the ways in which consumers (of products and of ideas) pick and mix elements of a longed-for culture to create a kind of bricolage, a nostalgic quilt of comforting impressions to curl up under.

But, to do this, we have to ignore un-picturesque or unsavory aspects of the culture(s) from which we’re borrowing. One can wax nostalgic about the virtues and protective benefits of friendly bacteria when one hasn’t buried a child (or children) from a strain of unfriendly bacteria.

Really, doesn’t this happen all the time? John Piper seems terribly nostalgic for the time when, as Archie Bunker sang, “girls were girls and men were men,” and many evangelical values touted as ‘biblical’ are really just grounded in nostalgia for “how we think (certain) things were” in the 1950s (or the 1850s, as the case may be), all while seeming to forget—or at least, to compartmentalize—elements of culture that went right along with ‘traditional gender roles,’ like Victorian gentlemen’s tendency to keep wives ‘pure’ by visiting mistresses, child labor, and Jim Crow.

I do wonder if something similar is happening with the ‘modesty’ movement in evangelicalism these days, and I was particularly intrigued by the popular Q talk on the ‘evolution of the bikini,’ where the alternative to contemporary and ‘immodest’ bikinis is presented as…you guessed it…50s and 60s inspired vintage styles. You can check out my contribution to a her.meneutics group post here, but first, can someone tell me how Audrey Hepburn in a bikini is less modest than Marilyn Monroe in a one piece?

I mean, besides the fact that she’s wearing a coat over it.

(Kind of proves the point my friend Caryn makes in the post…)

You may also like to see:

my review of Emily Matchar’s Homeward Bound.

my post about Michael Pollan’s new book, Cooked.

my friend Tim’s (another Tim…not husband Tim!) post about the “Ungodliness of Nostalgia”

What do Foodies Have to do With Faith & Feminism?

I have a new post up at Christianity Today on Michael Pollan’s new book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation:

“Lord, bless this food, and bless the hands that prepared it…

As far back as I can remember, whenever I heard this particular cliché in a mealtime prayer, I’d involuntarily picture a pair of magically disembodied hands, white and fluffy like Mickey and Minnie’s gloves, hovering over the kitchen counter, chopping carrots, lifting pot covers, and sweeping minced onions into pans of sizzling oil. “Why are we blessing the hands?” I’d think. “Why not the rest of the person?” It seemed a strange way to bless someone, especially at church dinners, where we all knew the women whose hands had prepared the food, and who, quite often, did the serving and cleaning up as well. Even so, this blessing did evoke the hidden nature of so much domestic work. It still does

Emily Matchar recently took author Michael Pollan to task for blaming women for the decline of home cooking. She notes that in his popular book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan insists that appreciating cooking “was a bit of wisdom that some American feminists thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen.” His take resembles Barbara Kingsolver’s, who in her memoir of local eating claims that the food industry essentially encouraged women to devalue home cooking as they sought equality in the workplace.

Pollan’s newest book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation, consciously takes a few steps back from that harsh assessment of feminism’s impact on home cooking, noting that while women’s liberation is sometimes blamed for the decline in home cooking, the actual situation is more complicated.”

{continue reading}

When you eat real food, you don’t need rules.

That’s rule #24 in Michael Pollan’s Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual, now out in a whimsically illustrated edition. As Laura Klein of points out in a recent post on the HuffPo food blog, if you follow this rule: “eat real food,” you don’t need other rules.

I love this one. Of course, it’s not really a stand-alone rule–it assumes you know what’s meant by “real food” and it assumes a food culture that supports the eating of said real food.

One example of the way our family follows this “rule” is with respect to bread. I feel that a good, fresh baguette (the kind that’s good only on the day it’s baked) is better than the kind of bread whose oxylated/ethylated-whatevers keeps it fresh for weeks–even if that kind is brown and  screams “Whole Grain!!!” while the baguette sits in its serene whiteness. The baguette is more ‘real’–no unpronounceable chemical ingredients, stales and rots quickly, and has a long tradition.

(Besides, we ate baguettes every day in France with Nora. How could the memory of that alone not imbue them with special healthfulness?)